It was 6 o’clock on a rainy, miserable morning when we finished loading our trailers. The first hint of dawn crept through the ribbons of clouds on the horizon. We departed the Paktika provincial headquarters compound gate, drove through dormant Sharana, re-entered the American side and waited for the National Guard platoon that would escort us back to the nearby airfield. The rain seeped through the turret hatch in the roof of the Bomb (our cargo truck), and when it became obvious that our escorts were delayed, we shuffled off to the dining facility to get one last Kellogg, Brown and Root breakfast.
My interpreter Tony rode with us to say goodbye. Our handyman Khan had helped us to load the trailers and had kissed each of us on the cheek. He was choked up, as were we. I promised him in broken Pashto that I’d come back someday. All of our interpreters and Afghan partners expressed sadness, but this moment was inevitable. Plus, they regularly rotated home on leave, whereas we were permanent fixtures; I think they understood that, job satisfaction aside, we were exhausted. I had been in Afghanistan for 379 days.
The sun broke through the clouds later in the day and I began to feel the imminent warmth of spring. We stashed all of our bags and gear inside the canvas tent that would serve as temporary housing on the north side of the airfield. We downloaded all the boxes and cases; some of them were ubiquitous military-issue foot lockers, whereas others were Afghan dream chests – tin lockers with acid-trip murals of rainbow landscapes intended to be given as wedding gifts. The post exchange was sold out of “tough boxes,” and besides, when would we ever be able to buy things like these again?
We packed them into the bed of a diesel Toyota Hilux truck and waited for the post office at the airfield to open. Driving the perimeter road, we turned the radio to Armed Forces Network and listened to Head East performing “Never Been Any Reason.” Its absurd prog-rock organ noises made me laugh, and it started to dawn on me just how excited I truly was. All of us were. Our return dates had been shifted back numerous times; we were to fly on literally the last flight for the entire 3,500-man brigade.
The bustle of the new unit’s integration surrounded us. Unfamiliar faces tore around the base on John Deere Gators and in otherwise-unused Humvees. The endless wind and rain of March was soon to begin, but despite the menace of black clouds on the mountains in the distance, a pocket of sunshine illuminated the day. Or maybe that’s just how I remember it as I stood outside labeling the boxes I was mailing home, hands working despite the wind chill, a smile on my face.
The plywood shacks that served as our headquarters hadn’t changed. The old, abandoned safe that was too heavy to move still rested on the outside porch. Nearby was the corner where I had vented my frustration to my first sergeant about our commander all those months prior. In front of me stood the massive apartment buildings that had been assembled from old shipping containers by a Turkish contractor. Everything was changing; soon enough it would be unrecognizable, and shortly thereafter our experience would ossify into a relic, a year in the war that grinds on, one slice of life in a place so far removed from the everyday that I have to remind myself that I once saw it with my own eyes.
Later that night, cooped up in our well-heated tents, downing the free Rip-It energy drinks despite a secret desire to just sleep until we arrived at home, we were greeted by a solemn-faced soldier at the door. He was traveling with us but still worked in the operations center until the last day, which was today. We would conduct the transfer of authority ceremony the next morning and depart for Bagram for the last time. I remember this conversation with undue clarity.
“Hey gentlemen, just wanted to let you know,” he said. “We just got word that 3-187 just lost a guy tonight driving back from Yusif Khel.”
“What? What happened?” I asked.
“It looks like they took a HEAT round through the door on the T-C side,” he said. “It was an R-G. The guy’s K-I-A. They’re going to fly him out tonight.”
All the air sucked out of the room. We stared at the floor. The translation of that statement: the new battalion had an element of soldiers driving back from an outpost in the south and, while en route, insurgents shot their vehicle (a BAE Systems RG-31) with an anti-tank rocket-propelled grenade. It penetrated the armor and killed the vehicle commander, who was riding shotgun. They hadn’t even taken over yet and they had lost a soldier.
“Fuck,” my commander said. “That just sucks.” The well of rage rose to reach the brim and then receded. Our war might have been over, but that meant altogether very little. I just needed to go home. It was truly a selfish thought process.
The next day’s transfer of authority ceremony was touching. We stood inside the same basketball court where we had rehearsed our air assault in November. The Afghans expressed their profound sadness that our battalion was leaving. They said that we were legendary, and hopefully that wasn’t entirely flattery on their part. We had worked very hard for a long time. It was out of our hands. I had offered to stay forever, but they hadn’t taken me on it. I was secretly very grateful.
We took a count of all our soldiers destined for Bagram and, in preparation for departure, we received instructions to discard all of our bullets. We wouldn’t need the ammunition anymore. It was a powerful statement to hear. There was a collection point inside the large clamshell tent. I walked in, knelt in the gravel beside the ammo can and began to methodically shuck each round out of my seven magazines.
The first bullet had a slight indentation and had the word THANKS written on it in block letters. I had written it with a marker after I had been handed the bullet by an orderly at the hospital. He was cleaning my friend Brian’s body after an improvised bomb had taken his life, and he had found the bullet inside the body bag. I made it the first round in my magazine, which ensured that it would be in the chamber whenever we departed on a mission. I didn’t want to shoot anybody, but if someone was going to make me do it, then it was going to be with that one. Not for closure, though – there was none. There would never be.
I never shot it, and I didn’t keep it. I could have emptied out the powder and brought it home, but why? It wasn’t worth remembering anymore. The totems and charms and the secret acts of grieving devotion had to stop sometime. Pretty soon, we wouldn’t need bullets. Pretty soon, we could pretend that we had never thought to need them. Clad in civilian clothes, hair a little longer, who would guess that we had been here? I would fight to keep that act up as long as possible.
Our return flight was supposed to be on a C-130 cargo plane, but instead we packed into two CH-47 Chinooks and flew low. The rucksacks and duffel bags filled the center aisle of the aircraft to the point that we were practically sitting atop one another. The fuel smell and incredible noise overwhelmed me. I could barely crane my neck to look out the window. I worried that we’d be too heavy to take off; the rotor blades whirred at an idle for the longest and weariest twenty minutes of my life. Then: the feeling of lift, an uptick in the rotors’ tempo and the sight of the deserts and mountains getting smaller in the distance.
We flew over the rippling heights of Ghazni and Wardak before hitting the wide-open green of the Shomali Plain. Suddenly, the aircraft fired off chaff – a countermeasure to deflect missiles. I wasn’t expecting it, and all I saw were sparks shooting out of the sides of the helicopter. Not now, I thought. Not this close. Please. My heart raced.
We didn’t crash. Grateful and anxious, I turned up the music on my iPod and ensured that I’d have a cigarette ready as soon as we were able to get out. Pastureland and rocky hills unfolded in front of us as we tracked further and further north into Parwan and Kapisa provinces. Finally, we landed. The helicopter taxied the runway like a plane.
We spent six days at Bagram. We slept in a gigantic clam-shell tent, a massive structure assembled by cranes and able to accommodate over 600 sleepers. There was no privacy, and the smell of filthy uniforms pervaded. I talked to my soldiers and sent emails home when I could find the time to wait in line at the morale center. Bagram had grown, and the point seemed punctuated by the sprawl of two- and three-story buildings under construction in the vicinity of our shelter area. It was a labyrinth of twelve-foot concrete blast walls, massively coarse gravel lots, Army tents, stores housed inside shipping containers, port-a-potties and showers filled with the Vermont National Guard or the Polish Army. We ate three meals a day. I smoked cigarettes at the picnic tables with the sergeant from my compound.
We had to show up eight hours early to clear customs before flying to Kyrgyzstan. The agents slapped stickers all over every piece of cargo, and in the holding area we found miniature bags of chips and Coca-Cola products from the bottling facility at Bagrami Industrial Estate in Kabul. We staggered like injured seabirds under the weight of our baggage and weapons as we walked a quarter-mile down the flight line to the awaiting C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft. It was a three-hour flight and a frighteningly abrupt landing. Once again, the coach buses through the narrow residential corridor outside of Bishkek. Once again, the Cyrillic text at the airport terminal, the bizarre trees, the huge tents and burned-out power outlets at Manas. We spent two days in the enormity of their dining facility, unused to actual metal silverware. There were new guys everywhere, trooping in clusters, some looking like high-school freshmen.
I wasn’t jealous of the returning soldiers when I came through Manas the first time; I was heading to an adventure, I thought. I remembered the cold and dark of that morning as we sorted our baggage. This time, I felt nothing but sympathy for these kids. Their uniforms seemed uncommonly clean. They’d have a whole year to soil them.
We had to fly all the way around the world again. It was late at night by the time we finally boarded the buses, and they showed us the final thirty minutes of The Hangover on the LCD screen as we waited to load the same civilian-contractor airline. Flo Rida’s “Right Round” played in the credits as pictures of drunken excess ticked off.
“24 hours of flying, boys, and you’ll be back doing that,” one of the sergeants on the bus laughed. Maybe we would.
First: Leipzig, Germany. The same impeccable German cleanliness and anonymous glass facades.
Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. An endless horizon of scrubby pine trees. Unintelligible accents.
Rockford, Illinois. Haggard Vietnam veterans served us coffee and shook our hands. We replied with bewildered gratitude.
Anchorage, Alaska. Home.
The lights in the terminal shined the same orange as we trooped out in a file, shaking hands with the commanders in the sub-zero cold, handing back our weapons to a group of soldiers inside, receiving instructions from the deputy commander, riding buses to the post gym, a five minute ceremony in front of cheering families. Then, “Group, atten-TION!”
Then, as though a blindfold had slipped from me after thirteen months, I giddily followed a friend to his truck parked in the snow outside. We sped into the night. I stared at the passing road signs, jolted by the recognition of names I had so long forgotten, my eyes wandering to the blackness of the night sky and the thought that it was over, that I had made it, and that I had no idea what would happen now.